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Feb 24, 2013

The Mask Slips

The Moon Moth, illustrated by Humayoun Ibrahim
I recently mentioned the fact that I discovered the science fiction of Jack Vance by way of his short story The Moon Moth. I'm not a big fan of short fiction, so once I found my way to Vance's novels I never looked back; I have not read The Moon Moth since 1978.

Last year an illustrated version of The Moon Moth became available, thus creating a new opportunity for another generation of readers to be introduced to the fiction of Jack Vance. The images to the right are by Humayoun Ibrahim; they convey the idea of a world where people hide their faces behind masks.

I recently started thinking about The Moon Moth while I was writing my previous blog post and imagining how Gwyned might disguise herself so that she could return to Earth. Gwyned is a character who plops into the middle of Parthney's life in Chapter Three of Exode. Gwyned was born on Earth, but she became disgusted by the way that nuclear physics, and nuclear physicists, had been sucked into the center of Cold War politics.

Gwyned managed to escape from Earth in 1964 and then she finds herself living at the secret Interventionist base called Lendhalen. When Parthney arrives to begin his training for a mission to Earth, Gwyned is deep into plotting a way to return to Earth. However, the Buld who run Lendhalen have no intention of allowing Gwyned to return to Earth; they simply want Gwyned to pass her knowledge of the current conditions on Earth along to Parthney.

Gwyned faces an interesting challenge at Lendhalen. She finds herself surrounded by fantastic technologies never seen on Earth. The Buld have been traveling between the stars of the Galactic Core for many tens of thousands of years. However, their spaceships were provided to them by aliens and it was not until 20,000 years ago that a small rebel faction of the Buld learned how to read and write and began the process of trying to understand the technological wonders that they had taken for granted for so long.

Progress towards that understanding has been slow. There have never been very many Buld rebels. The Buld have been engineered to require symbiotic nanites inside their bodies in order to reproduce. However, those nanites integrate into Buld brain tissue where they prevent the Buld from being able to use written language and even from being skillful tool users. The Buld rebels have made their choice: they live without nanites.

Among the rebels, a few Buld scientists seem to have made considerable technological progress in some areas. For example, about 5,000 years ago the Buld mastered the art of making humanoid robots. Lendhalen thus has a two-tiered social structure made up from the small Buld population and their more numerous robotic assistants.

The first person who Parthney meets at Lendhalen is a member of the Buld Clan named Leymaygn. Leymaygn has been tasked with teaching Parthney to read and write and also train him in self-defense and hand-to-hand combat. Leymaygn is amazed by how quickly Parthney begins to read and she is impressed by his skill as a fighter. When Parthney was a child on Hemmal his caretakers taught him to read at a young age and also rigorously subjected him to physical training. However, after the age of seven Parthney's interests actively centered on music and he did not make use of his reading, writing and physical skills again until reaching Lendhalen, more than 10 years later.

Upon meeting Parthney, Gwyned quickly decides that he is an ignorant, chubby and lazy kid who is not worth wasting time on. Rather appalled by Parthney's obvious interest in her as the only human woman at Lendhalen, she provides him with one of her robotic assistants, Robin. Parthney, who is twice the size of Leymaygn soon finds himself pitted against both Robin and Leymaygn in his daily physical training sessions.

Initially fascinated by his reading about Earth history, Parthney's thinking about Earth is soon dominated by disappointment. Having lived for 18 years on the well-planned and comfortable world of Hemmal, Parthney is revolted by the squalor and suffering associated with human life on Earth. He takes refuge in his enjoyment of music and begins to shirk the strict training regimen that is preparing him for a mission to Earth.

With time, Parthney comes to notice that Robin's behavior does not conform to the conventional behavior of the robots of Lendhalen. At first he thinks about Robin as being the Lendhalen equivalent of the pek so he does not question the sophisticated behavior of Robin. Only later does Parthney realize that Robin is exceptional. For a brief time he is frustrated by his inability to convince Leymaygn and Gwyned that Robin is special. When ever others are present, Robin displays only simple pre-programmed behaviors.

Parthney has an interesting conversation with Gwyned during which she admits that she tried to find the research records describing how the Buld learned to construct humanoid robots. Not only was Gwyned unable to find those records, she admits, "I can't see how the damned robots work. I took one apart and found nothing inside it that could function like a human brain."

Parthney comes upon Robin and Vozgrow discussing Earth
At that point Parthney has a change of mind and he decides not to "kill the goose that lays golden eggs". Why question the good things in life? He's happy and starts making plans to stay permanently at Lendhalen. He tries to forget the inconvenient truth that hidden behind her mask, there is something exceptional about Robin. Is she something more than a Buld robot?

The Mask Slips
Lurking unseen within stories that are set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe are the mysterious Huaoshy. In Exode, the term "Huaoshy" is used by Vozgrow to refer to hypothetical aliens who created the pek. I've previously suggested that some humans can come to wonder if they are puppets of the Huaoshy.

However, I want to also raise in the minds of readers the possibility that the Huaoshy might also instantiate themselves inside robots. What better way would there be for the Huaoshy to watch Parthney and influence his development as an Interventionist agent? Rather than read all of the available reports on Earth's culture, Parthney orders Robin to discuss those reports with him. Gradually, through his conversations with Robin, Parthney develops a realistic understanding of Earth's past and the unique challenge that will soon be thrust upon the people of Earth: first contact with the passengers aboard an arriving spaceship.

Robot lab at Lendhalen
Finally, after several years go by, Vozgrow realizes that Parthney's relationship with Robin is distracting him from his planned mission to Earth. Vozgrow has a showdown with Robin during which they openly discuss the looming crisis on Earth. At the end of the discussion the memories of Vozgrow and Parthney are adjusted so as to satisfy the ethical rules by which the Huaoshy interact with primitive creatures like we humans. Parthney abandons his plans for living out his life at Lendhalen. "Robin the robot" returns to her dull and boring robotic behavior.

Parthney is left with his memories of Robin and her unusual behavior, but he is unable to discuss what he has experienced with his fellow Interventionists. However, what he heard Robin tell Vozgrow and his inability to discuss it has become a powerful motivation for Parthney to go to Earth and help liberate the Earthlings from the lingering effects of the pek nanites that had been used to prevent Earthlings from developing a technological civilization.

The Ghost in the Machine
The humans and Buld at Lendhalen are all confident that they live free of nanites and so their behavior is not controlled by the pek. It is true that they are free of the relatively crude nanites that are used by the pek. However, unknown to them, the Huaoshy have even more advanced devices with structural components composed of sedronic matter. The Huaoshy can effortless equip the crude Buld robots with sub-zeptoscale components and control systems that cannot be detected by the Buld. Gwyned grows increasingly frustrated by her inability to understand the advanced technology of the Buld, but the Huaoshy have been careful to allow the Buld to use just those technologies that serve the purposes of the Huaoshy without allowing the Buld to actually develop an understanding of that technology or the power to explore other technologies without assistance from the aliens. When Gwyned decides that she can accomplish nothing significant at Lendhalen she decides to return to Klyz and try to establish a working relationship with the Fru'wu.

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